FOX 8 Defenders: Solar panels & installer contracts

Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses now use solar panels in New Orleans, and Entergy New Orleans says the number of people applying to get them is growing.  But Entergy suggests you take a hard look at the contract before you hire an installer.

Solar panels absorb radiation from the sun and convert that energy to electricity that's used to run appliances in your home.

"Before Katrina, the bills in the summer would be like $200 to $300, especially in the summer," explained homeowner Nola Verrett. "Now, since you know that we live in an energy efficient home... sometimes the bills be $24, but the most so far was $52," she explained.

Post-Katrina, Verrett's Lower Ninth Ward home is also all energy efficient which, on top of her solar panels, adds to the utility savings.

"I would say from the lights to the tankless water heater... the dual toilets and ceiling fans... everything is energy efficient... the washer and dryer, everything in our house," said Verrett.

"Any electricity needs that you have in your home will come from the solar panel first, and then if you need more electricity, you buy that from the power company," said Melonie Hall, Director of Customer Service for Entergy New Orleans.  "So it'll flow through your meter."

If you produce more power than you need, you'll see a credit on your next month's bill, but Entergy points out that doesn't happen in most cases.

Solar panels can cost thousands of dollars, but tax credits for renewable energy offered on both the state and federal level right now cover about 80 percent of the cost.

"So you only have that 20 percent to pay. Now, what makes it even more attractive is that today, some companies are offering a monthly payment option where you don't have to come up with the up-front costs," said Hall.  "You can just pay a monthly fee over time... and get the solar panels installed."

It can be affordable, but Hall stressed you should make sure the panel installer is a reputable company and focus on the terms of the contract before you hire someone. She suggests consumers ask a lot of questions, including how long you will have to make the payments, what you will save on your energy bill, and what the payback period is.  Then, Hall explained, you can determine your real benefits.

Hall says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website, NREL, is an independent resource to calculate how much money you're going to save. "Because you want to compare that number to the amount that you're gonna be paying every month to have that system installed," said Hall.

Entergy doesn't sell, lease, install or maintain solar panels, but if you want them you have to fill out an application with Entergy to have a meter installed that can read the power that flows in and out of your home. According to Hall, the city also requires that you get a permit.

The FOX 8 Defenders and volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women are here to take your consumer concerns. If you have one, call them at 1-877-670-6397.